DMRLW (No. 2): “The Personal is Political”

Dialectical Materialist Responses to Liberal Wokeness (No. 2): “The Personal is Political”

 

It is often that I encounter this mis-use of the concept “the personal is political” when liberals and new age maoists online defend their personal opinions or takes or lifestyle choices as a certain validation of its importance elevated to the level of political. That it is indeed, that my personal life, being political, is worth talking about. The source of the concept, Carol Hanisch herself, was never really concerned of personal troubles or personal issues or anything “personal” at all. “The Personal is Political” is found in her text in the context of another passage: “Women are messed over, not messed up!” Women, for Hanisch, experience womanhood in the patriarchal sense always already in the context of power relations

It is actually in the “broader“sense of being political — that is, framing in the context of power relations, as Hanisch herself would suggest — that liberals and new age maoists tend to miss the implication of Hanisch’s concept. Primarily because of class-privilege. The decontextualized “personal is political” becomes quite a marketing scheme: it sells privileged, intimate and private personal life as political. It only reeks of opportunism. It is also in this context of opportunism that liberals and new age maoists tend to find validation for their indulgence to commodity culture. As a supplement to New Age Maoist Aesthetics, decontextualized “personal is political” validates personal taste by presupposing mis-read (or opportunistic readings) of revolutionary theory into their preferred pop culture commodities without a sense of irony. Say, a Marxist validation of a Mariah Carey lyric without an actual Marxist analysis. Or a Maoist validation of pop punk without considering the historical implications of the genre. Decontextualized “personal is political” supplements commodity fetishism through its use of revolutionary rhetoric.

Worst implication of decontextualized “personal is political” is the opportunistic use of politics, political participation and/or the revolutionary movement in the production of representational commodities from highly privileged sources. Say, the use of protest footages in the film Never Tear Us Apart (Cinema One Originals 2018), which montage unironically supplements the metaphor of the closet “struggle” of the protagonist in the sense of an equation. That the main character’s personal struggles, regardless of his class-privilege, is equal to the economico-political struggles of the urban poor (protest footages on the film, as per the film credits say, came from Sining Kadamay — cultural arm of the urban poor mass organization, Kalipunan ng Damayang Mahihirap (KADAMAY)). It is in the fact that most commentators who liked the film liked it because of it’s “personal” aspect, says a lot about its use of protest footage as merely an extension of the personal rather than of the political. Don Jaucian noted on how the film will remind you that “the monsters we make ourselves are the realest of them all” invoking that it might just be the family, still, without taking power relations in the atomic unit of the family into consideration.

In her 2006 introduction for her classic essay, Hanisch realized how much of the writing still stand to time. From the basic aspects of the analysis (of the feminist critique grounded in class-analysis and critique of power relations) to the specific contradictions of their lives as women which rectification, resolution and error-correction is still an on-going process. It is in this weight that the passage “personal is political” rides: that it takes a kind of commitment to a political struggle for one to recognize that the fault is not within one’s head or the monster is not of one’s own making. The monster is as real as the great machines waiting to pulverize the what is left of the living community of San Roque in exchange of an extension of the lifeless Quezon City Business District.

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Dialectical Materialist Responses to Liberal Wokeness (No. 1)

Today, I’m trying to start a serial again, hopefully something which I can sustain. Still, something non-cinematic in focus. I’m trying to address in this series what the title says: responding to liberal “hot takes” through abstracting them with dialectical materialism.

The method takes from the Marxist-Leninist-Maoist line which abstracts phenomena in social practice. Mao distinguished social practice from simply doing: that social practice can only be found if one is to contact doing within the living environment of the act. That social practice do not just involve production, but the whole sphere in which man lives and comes into contact with every relation (political, artistic, class, etc). But as a dialectical process, this do not mean that every aspect of social relations live harmonically, but, in essence, they exist independently from each other. Contradictions exist because we do not really exist for other beings or objects. Nature has always been in contradiction with other living beings. The tiger do not particularly care of our existence, but since it has its own needs and presets, it tries to devours things and beings which contradicts its own existence: you pass through its territory, it will attack you; it gets hungry, it will eat the first living thing it would smell. The same thing goes with human beings. Mao noted that the primary contradiction in the capitalist society is class interest. Which is why capitalism acts also as a devourment of energy since the owners of capital really is in contradictory existence with the labor force.

To situate specifically in the context of Philippine realities, dialectical materialism looks at the semi-feudal semicolonial configuration of capitalist ownership as base and its effect in social reality. It is within this context that the more specified configuration of Imperialism, Bureaucrat Capitalism and Feudalism are being addressed as drivers of capital.

For this first edition, I’m addressing the statement common among urban woke liberals and new age maoists alike:

The artist has a social responsibility for truth and justice

We need to place the concept of the artist in the backdrop of economic base to see whether this responsibility actually exist. In this sense, we need to distinguish the act of artistic production, or labor for that matter, from any other activities like, say, political, social, etc. As such, labor is private, at least under capitalist circumstances. In this situation, it must be assumed what artists and other working people are actually assuming in the first place: that labor and politics are autonomous from each other.

Since the act of production — most specially of anything artistic — is private, we can never really ask on any form of social responsibility on the onset, even though artists themselves gain their insights from exploiting the social realm of life. Seeking social responsibility from artists is the same as capitalist green politics seeking environmental responsibility from industrial companies: they do so not for the rehabilitation of nature, but for the assurance of the reproduction of the value-extraction process. That in the future, we can still exploit nature. In seeking social responsibility as an act of guilt-tripping, we reproduce capitalism through the reproduction of the socially responsible artist and socially conscious art, in the same manner that green politics assures further exploitation of nature (not to mention, of workers) by environmentally friendly companies.

But under capitalism, autonomy is not assured. Although, mere act of artistic production itself is not yet the site of capitalism, it gets crystallized in the act of its exchange. In the age of bureaucratic capitalism, a lot of cases in artistic production involve the artistic commodity being exchanged even before it was produced, through grants and other acts of patronship politics. It is in this sense that capital and its supporting political superstructure gets in the way of artistic autonomy. Capitalist extraction of value has always been in the form of blackmail: you don’t eat if you don’t work. Which is why, under capitalism, value is not intrinsic to an artwork. For any labor to be of value, Marx noted there should at least be a social necessity for a commodity before it can be said that the labor expended is of value. There is such a thing as useless labor: a labor expended on a thing which has no social necessity. Generically, there is a social need for art. Atomically, nobody asks for a specific artwork, of say, your feelings, your lovelife, or your sexual kinks, or even your political views. It is in this sense that art as a self-expression is valueless: no one asks for you to express yourself through your artwork, therefore, it’s useless.

But in the present context, art gains its value not on any form of actual material extraction, but through speculative means. This is where curators come in, and also publishers, critics, “influencers”, bureaucrats, museums, art markets, auction houses, workshops, artist talks, etc. But as much as the relationship is social, under bureaucrat capitalism, transactions remain private. You just can’t be a young, rising, breakthrough artist without, say, rubbing elbows with one who’s who, or at least, you can’t get the grant without tickling the interest of one possible member of the selection committee. Art in the 21st century is produced not as an expression, but as an algorithm. The value of any artwork stem from contradictory interests of multiple speculators, artists included. There are sellable artworks, and there’s a pattern for to attain sellability. Or at least, the algorithm is based on who do you want to sell your shit.

Looking at these instances of algorithmic social relations, any form of class-conscious ethics will only pass through the void of self-expression. There is a non-unitary relation between art as self-expression and political participation. Although, it is not yet antagonistic, since we’re failing to address each on their own terms. It is also through this non-antagonistic “resolution” of self-expression and political participation that political art meets its doom. Most political art succeeds artistically, that is, it is generating the value that it speculates, no matter how limited it is. We’ve never learned from the early 1900s modernists. The fact that Duchamp’s The Fountain is still valued may resonate still its poetic project (of exposing the non-sense of art’s speculative market), but like most subversions, Duchamp’s projects are political failures.

On a recent episode of Hermitix podcast, Nick Land noted on how on every attempt to construct a post-capitalist project, capital revives through every intelligent successes that these constructions are doing. He clarified that success here is still in the capitalist framework, that is, success is when value can possibly extracted from the thing being produced. The same regression can be seen on every attempt to salvage art and trying to make it work with a political content. As such, none of the agenda flows through the art-object produced. To make politics succeed artistically is a site of positive feedback which reinforces self-regenerating circuitry of capitalist production-for-profit. Land noted on how Mao’s attempt to actively suppress capitalist tendencies as one of the more viable attempts to escape this positive feedback loops.

To go further with Mao, it is also him who suggested to let go of the bourgeois “artistic moods”, which cybernetically feeds capital circuitry. On the onset, this is a war-tactical suggestion for art to be used and be made to work for struggle against imperialism. The ethics of this do not fall on any assumption of inherent function of art and artists in general, but its usability for the struggle by answering the question: for whom does one make art? This question is not used to impose guilt but as a starting point of critique. It exposes the position of the object produced and who produced it. It necessitates an escalation of non-unitary contradiction of art and politics to an antagonism. It is only in this site of antagonistic, partisan deployment that we can pose ethical questions. But not in asking for a responsible way of doing things, but for seeking accountability after the crime.

New Age Maoist Aesthetics

A trend seems to be happening among young, urban activists and allies: they get easily fascinated and responsive of positive representation of politics, rebels and activists on any platform, especially on popular capitalist art. Cultural representation seems to be the name of the game. What is formerly subversive has now become a default setting. Cultural representation is easy and, in the era of neoliberal multiplicity, profitable. In fact, contemporary cultural products tend to capitalize into notions of diversity and multiplicity (rhizomes, anyone?), only to the point that what is represented is not the marginalized being presented in contrast and as alternative against the status quo, but the marginalized performing (for) the status quo. A kind of trickle-up effect: productions representing the oppressed are revaluated and appreciated with ruling class criterion and are being produced for the expropriation of value by the ruling class.

Representation is comfort food. Representation made the privileged from marginalized origins feel empowered. As for people from privileged origins being newly organized on political movements, positive representation of protesters, activists and rebels is hoped to bring about a reinforcing effect. But the effect is floating, since the source of reinforcement is merely imaginary. Of course, I’m not saying that efforts for organizing the petit bourgeois and the middle class stops with this, other organizational activities are being done, of course. I’m not addressing organizing here. I’m addressing the aesthetic appreciation caused by these practices.

It seems like the form of appreciation of what I call as New Age Maoism only get from Mao’s assessment of art his response to the 2nd problem, extol or expose, but without its element in class analysis. What makes it “New Age” came from a certain mystical disappearance of the other aspects of Mao’s problematics in art. Most specially disappeared are the more important problems: the problem of class-stand and the problem of Marxist scholarship. New Age Maoism happens when organized petty bourgeois tend to extract a comfortable portion of Maoist thought compatible or tolerable for their class origins. A complete reversal of the requirement of transformation in Marxism-Leninism-Maoism which seeks for the person to delve into the difficult task of criticism and self-criticism: of self-consciousness of one’s own class origins and of contradictions and antagonisms.

New Age Maoism is a Maoism devoid of any antagonism. It’s an impotent version of Maoism. It does not enable weaponization, that is, as a mode of aesthetics, New Age Maoism do not fulfill the task of art and literature to “fit well into the whole revolutionary machine” since such mode of appreciation do not abstract the work to contribute to the struggle. If it does so, only for aesthetic appreciation.

New Ageism abhors contradictions. New Age encorporated to Maoism demolishes the most significant aspect of its theoretical line, which is the acknowledgement of contradictions and intensifying them to the level of struggle. It exchanges acknowledging and dismantling antagonisms for “conflict resolution” and harmonious existence between antagonistic class interests (most of the time, benefiting the exploiting classes).

As aesthetics, New Age Maoists are overwhelmed with representations of many kinds. Influence of liberal intersectional politics makes a good trap for New Age Maoists. With the overabundance of representation in popular cultural products, the attention given by New Age Maoists contribute not with the cause of the struggle, but to the validation of the products and its audience. Jonathan Beller noted on how before the turn of the 21st century, paying attention became a source of capital’s extraction of surplus value. In the age of communicative capitalism, paying attention and giving reactions to images contribute to the capitalist expropriation of value.

New Age Maoists celebrates the image. But in the overabundance of representation, these images of representation floats around with other images of funny cats, Wojack Memes, feel good quotations and other poor images widely exchanged and further compressed for faster transmission and value extraction. The celebration of the image denies class struggle. It exchanges the actual participation to political struggle for the representation of activism or politics; actual revolutionary thinking for a revolution in thought.

Not that New Age Maoism doesn’t have a problem. In itself, it depends on the unity of petty bourgeois class standing and revolutionary aesthetics. This is resolved through the dismissal or unthinking of the revolutionary in the revolutionary aesthetics, and only consider its aesthetic side. Or worse, a consideration of revolution but only in aesthetics. It seeks to salvage cultural products, especially what we call political art – regardless of the political economic rubric of its production – solely based on its representation of politics. It is not that salvaging and extolling revolutionary elements in a work is not important, the problem is that, to salvage is the first impulse of a New Age Maoist. More importantly, and more dangerously, New Age Maoism forgets the conditions on how art, literature and newer forms of representation like film are produced under capitalism.

The danger of forgetting the conditions of production in exchange of extolling representation is in the blindness of the forces of exploitation which lies on the production of the images being celebrated. Greatest recent case is the extolling of the film Heneral Luna (2015) produced by corporate-bourgeois comprador studio, TBA, owned by Fernando Ortigas and Eduardo Rocha. The titular general, extravagantly performed, is seemingly anti-American. But the film isn’t just about him. It does not really uphold an anti-imperialist stance. But the images of extravagant and violent hero sold better, and as intended. New Age Maoism do not contradict marketing: it effectively affirms it and re-interpellates the activist to being a consumer.

This “forgetting” seems to be an unconscious act. And the fact that it is unconscious bears more danger. It reflects a lack in theoretical and practical understanding of modes of production, most probably due to a lack also of a practical application in the understanding of things. Marxist-Leninist-Maoist analysis is admittedly an uncomfortable thing to do as it involves actual intellectual – and to some extent, manual – labor contrary to the comforting thoughts given by petit bourgeois essentialism. For the analysis of mode of production be not-prioritized and be shelved into forgetting even in the analysis of seemingly trivial objects (like art, literature and film) poses a danger of repeating the ruling class discourse. People from the urban movement defending Quark Henares’ statement on “film and music as modes of self-expression” – assuming a political autonomy in the production of cultural products under capitalism – missed the point of a Maoist critique of art. Universalizing statements from the ruling class and their stalwarts like Henares bears no universal position on truth just yet on the function of things: what art, literary and film production mean now are still to be determined by the outcome of the protracted people’s war.

Symptoms point to possible remedies. Since the dismissal is unconscious, a conscious – if not, self-conscious – attempt towards further abstraction and theorization of the analysis cultural products in the theoretical line of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism needs to be revitalized. An insistence of a theoretical practice (praxeology) is needed. Admittedly, with the demands of the time piling up among organizers and activists – with the deepening crises of accelerated global capitalism, intensified anti-people campaigns of the reactionary government – a day’s work seem to be lacking to address another point of a problem. But in this mess of chaos that a correction and realignment in thought of the theoretical line is needed. Positive activities are happening though, in the recent educational discussion festivals organized by different sectors: seems like the necessity for addressing the problems in the theoretical line are being resolved. What needs to be done is to resolve – again, addressing Mao’s 4th problem in the Talks at the Yenan Forum – the study of theories of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism for more effective and intensified aesthetic-critical interventions.

This remedy being suggested is also a prevention for further aesthetic opportunistic use of the revolution and revolutionary aspects of the people’s culture for the benefit of one’s petty bourgeois desire and art. Mao’s intervention on art and literature seeks the reverse, and rightly so: for art to be of use for the people and the people’s struggle. And for that to happen, it necessarily places art not in the final instance, but art is reduced into a tool as it bears almost the same liberalistic potential as the violence of a gun. Not in the expense of choosing between the two, but using both cultural and political struggles as means to further the agenda of the people.

Much as the cultural and political struggles are both of equal significance, so is the determination and analysis not just of form and content in art and literature, but also what enables their production. Such a task tend to convert an analysis to criticism. Mere aesthetic appreciation is impotent and useless, criticism sets analysis in motion. But it is a criticism not to further liberal agenda for art. It is a criticism which carries a “struggle on two fronts”: it demands a resolution between politics and art, not in the sense of representation or a “mixing” of it. Dialectical resolution demands a struggle in-process and not just mere unification. Dialectical resolution demands for art and politics to be raised antagonistically within the form and content of both art production and criticism. And these cannot be done through a simple salvaging of “progressive” content from reactionary sources. The task is to break form, content and political economy: the practices of producing the form, the practices of producing what is being said in the form, and what enable the production of these. As Mao places it: “The criterion for judging subjective intention or motive is social practice and its effect.”

Fragmented notes on Materialism, Ethics and Anti-Capitalist Praxis as a result of a Friday-night conversation over beer which I never really drank

For Mike Esteves, Vic Teaño and Adrian Mendizabal

 

In his Theses on Feuerbach, Marx differentiated what he sees as the “old” Materialism and his then “new” Materialism. The old Materialism, Marx defined as inattentive of “human sensual activities.” Terry Eagleton would later thread into Marx’ categorizations as materialisms which coexists with different projects. A scientists’ basic task is to be at least a materialist. Empiricism pervaded scientific thought earlier in the Enlightenment which made materialist thought rigid. The same can still be seen with scientific-reductionism of Richard Dawkins. But this speaks to us one requirement of materialism, that is, to acknowledge the realities of science, if not as scientists, as sentient beings. But, as the implications of this introduction show, we can’t talk of Materialism now without even looking at the ghost of Marx and Engels.

Materialism is not without its drawbacks. One thinking in a materialist way knows that it is an uncomfortable thought. Materialism makes one realize human “frailty and finitude.” (Eagleton, Materialism, 6) Eagleton noted that this acknowledgement do (or should) not foster nihilism, but realism. Much as this should have been a comforting notion, the greatest drawback of materialist thought came from its dialectical opposition with the (non-)narrative of pervading neoliberal thought which is perpetuated with new age (i.e. neoconservative) essentialism. Realism, in this age, bears with it a negative affect which eventually leads to a certain kind of nihilism. Materialism contrasts Herbert Marcuse’s diagnosis of a society without opposition. A society which is “comfortable, smooth, [and] reasonable,” (Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man, 3) formerly pervading American industrial society, is now replicated even in the third world through UN’s globalization powered by Netflix.

I’d like to believe that the main positive sense of materialism came from its acknowledgement of the existence of materials themselves. Empiricism acknowledges reality as such, and nothing more. Going over the danger of humanist essentialism, materialism, as I’d like to believe, sees materials as ingredients for construction or as pieces to destroy. Much of the modernist practices of art sees the world this way: an art’s essence, if not shit, is something that is constructed and is always in negotiation. The same thing goes with every essence, if one is to look into essence in a materialist sense.

Construction is physical. The construction site adds value to the location where the establishment is constructed. So is essence as a construct. The materialist response to essence and essentialisms, I think, is not an impulsive renouncement of it, but through a critical inquiry of its construction site: not purely of the location of construction, but also of what is being constructed. Criticism meant to be a test of strength of materials. Its mechanics necessarily thread into the specifics of the materials whether they could stand the strain, to clear the cloud of essentialism and expose the level of plasticity of the construct.

Destruction is physical too. But what’s interesting with materialism is that, it destroys because it needs to construct. Material mechanics of essentialisms, once strength and plasticity are acknowledged, may construct material thought through the very destruction (or deconstruction) of essentialism: the fact that essentialism can be deconstructed and sourced to a certain location, means that the essence is material and plastic.

In literature, for example, its criticism tests the words as materials, which for Edel Garcellano either define or betray its location. (Intertext, 108) Once the material is identified, it’s only a matter of mechanics to see whether it supports or can positively destroy its location. The strength of a material, I think, is more defined in a society like ours, where contradictions abound on extreme levels. On a recent writing, I noted of an overdetermination of contradictions which defines our daily realities. Although, a materialist acknowledgement of contradictions never really gets confused of overdeterminations. Rather, these stacks of layers are considered as materials which define itself the contemporary so-called identity. In this sense, materialist thought necessarily partakes, or rather itself a partisan stance, to clear the cloud globalist neoliberal essentialism spread over the intellectual atmosphere of the third world.

As mentioned earlier, materialism actively supports constructions and do not just differentiate, say, the forest for the trees: it also acknowledges how trees or forests are cut to build either a toy car, a scrabble tire, the President’s chair, or fences around a still feudal-owned land. Materialism completes its thought through construction. It takes a commitment to construction of materialist concepts or destruction of essentialism before one can be acknowledged as a materialist.

This commitment to construction/destruction, I think, should only be the only ethical barometer of anyone thinking in a materialist sense. But its ethics, of course, is no more important the act of construction itself.

The common mistake of those who claim that they think materially, is that, when ethical questions arises, they responded with moralism. I recently responded to a thread by a “collective” over at Facebook to address an ethical question. [See Ibong Adorno’s Page] The problem by which its responders address is a fault of material mechanics: the materials being tested are not of equal calibration. There is a concern over an ethical practice of writing and its problem of political economy in award-giving bodies. Which, I think, can only be solved if writing itself is abstracted into the level of political economy: on how under capitalism, for example, writing itself cannot exist apart from being a commodity, and how the practice of commoditization itself — the cyclical extortion of human labor by Capital — is the main ethical concern, that the award giving bodies themselves are merely symptoms.

Capital makes victims and accomplices from one’s body. It coexists inside a so-called being. Under capitalism, one’s production, in the case that I’m addressing (and I apologize if this came late) is art or film, is already caught within this webmess of contradictions. Complicity with Capital do not begin and end with production, it’s there before you even participate. I agree, definitely, that self-reflexivity and acknowledgement of these realities and reflecting them into your produce, or art-piece, or film do not make it more ethical.

But to leave all these contradictions aside, for the sake of “craftsmanship”, so to say, is even more unethical. Recent developments in global capitalism assures more effective extortion of labor value from the participation of creatives and campaigns of diversity (whether in style or identity). The model of attention economy is more important now than ever. Media-streaming conglomerates expropriate even moments at-rest of laborers, to make it value-producing, with the ubiquity of binge-watching. Unethical, because, “craftsmanship” alone do not materially construct nor destroy. Craftsmanship itself is the name of a fetishized continuation of new-age essentialism in art. (Say, Mike’s criticism of John Torres’ oppressive practice of enforced meaning in both Ang Ninanais and Mapang-Akit, if looked at materially, is no different than an indie filmmaker’s participation with Star Cinema and leaving it for a pursuit of “artistic autonomy” — they are as unethical as they are both products of a bourgeois artists’ privilege.) It is on the same vein where deviantart, tumblr, instagram or facebook extorts artworks as contributed contents from possibly underpaid or unpaid freelancers waiting for their next client to make them a prototype of their new company’s logo. It is in this sense that Mao critiqued “art-for-art’s sake” tendencies of bourgeois artists: aside from its apparent uselessness as materials, they extort labor-time.

Dialectically, I do not really consider creating political art alone as potent. It’s probably the same as neoliberal craftsmanship, with heightened opportunism. It is only from commitment also for materialist construction and destruction which I see the fulness of a truly ethical production. Not in a form of “playing around” the rules of neoliberal capital, but in a construction site outside it or on the site after the current locations has been destroyed. Criticism and (art and film) production themselves are not ethical if not done so as a continuation and extension of the materialist construction and destruction of and for new realities and thought. Criticism and production’s progressive potential do not come from themselves — whether in form or content — but with one’s participation with the said construction and destruction. Whether criticism and art be useful once materialist construction and destruction has been done is of another issue.